Robert Faggen Named Evans-Neves Professor of Literature

Philanthropists Barton Evans and Andrea Neves have announced the donation of an endowed chair in literature to Claremont McKenna College. The chair will be held by Professor Robert Faggen, the first Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves Professor of Literature.

Barton Evans graduated from the management engineering program of Claremont McKenna College and master’s co-terminal program of Stanford University in 1972, receiving bachelor’s degrees in economics and engineering, as well as a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford. Evans retired in 2003 as executive vice president and chief operating officer from Dionex Corporation, which he joined just after its founding as the principal engineer, and is now serving as a senior executive consultant for Dionex. In addition, he retired from the Civil Affairs Branch of the U.S. Army Reserve at the rank of Colonel after more than 30 years of service, with awards and decorations including the Legion of Merit and Meritorious Service Medals. His spouse, Andrea Neves, received her bachelor’s in international relations from the Universidad de las Americas (Mexico City, Mexico) and is presently professor of education at Sonoma State University. She also teaches in the graduate education school at Stanford University, where she received her doctorate in 1984.

Evans and Neves say their decision to endow a chair in literature came from shared concern for empowering diverse voices and enfranchising core humanities instruction in education. Evans fondly recalls his classes in literature, philosophy, and the humanities in his junior year. “I like Melville and Frost. I was still an engineer,” says Evans, “but this voice in me said: ‘You’ve got to cut loose some time for the humanities.’” This concern for the humanities has stayed with him. Evans says he is particularly concerned with supporting the fundamentals of liberal arts education, arguing that the humanities need more support. “The humanities and the function of education itself are pretty generally and consistently shortchanged by society,” he says, “and my view is that the root of most problems in society begins with people who do not get a decent education.”

Neves shares this concern for meaningful and just educational practices. She has spent decades teaching and consulting on issues of social justice, inclusion, and equality, having worked as an educational consultant for a variety of agencies, including the California State Department of Education, the Tanzania Ministry of Education, the Detroit City Schools, North Slope School District (Barrow, Alaska), and the Sonoma County Schools. In 1997, she was granted a Fulbright-Hays Research Fellowship in Tanzania. She has returned to Africa on several occasions, including a second Fulbright-Hays Research Fellowship to Uganda in the summer of 2002. As a result of her research in Africa, she and Evans have funded the construction of several schools and teacher’s residences in Tanzania.

The gift to Claremont McKenna is part of a larger series of gifts to institutions including Sonoma State University, Stanford University, and Philips Exeter Academy, all designed to promote social justice and create space for diverse points of view. “The idea of multiple voices and alternative perspectives on the world is a centerpiece” of the gifts, says Neves. “Dr. Faggen stands out as an alternative voice.”

The theme of social justice is unmistakable in Robert Faggen’s work, focusing on the study of literature as a consideration of ethics, truth, and authentic expression: “I think that it’s unquestionably the case that literature is connected to our sense of ethics,” says Faggen. “How we tell stories is inextricably related to how we understand the ethical, and ultimately the moral, sense of what we do.”

“I think that students, when they are studying literature, are looking at how others are trying to be truthful about themselves and the world.”

Faggen is the author of Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin (University of Michigan) and a forthcoming biography of author Ken Kesey for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He is editing an edition of the complete works of Robert Frost for Harvard University Press, and has edited The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, the Selected Poems of Edward Arlington Robinson, the Early Poems of Robert Frost, and Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz. A founder of the Milosz Archive and Institute, Faggen’s interviews with the late Nobel Laureate appeared in The Paris Review and Books and Culture. Faggen teaches courses that cover a broad range of subjects, including American literature, science and literature, Polish literature, contemporary Irish poetry, the Bible, rhetoric and oratory, and Milton.

“It is a great honor to have one’s work and the work of Claremont McKenna College so strongly endorsed by people who have been observing what we’re doing here,” says Faggen. “It will give me even greater freedom and encouragement to explore the kinds of questions both in and out of the classroom that are most important to the development of my students and of my scholarly projects.”

Evans has described Faggen as a kind of “humanities scientist,” whose work includes the meticulous examination of texts under the microscope in his converted garage. Faggen describes this as a kind of “forensic scholarship,” part of his ongoing efforts to decipher and interpret the multi-faceted notebooks and manuscripts of Robert Frost. Faggen’s current scholarly interests include an ongoing examination of the relationships between literature and science, an area Faggen finds to have many subtle interrelationships.

“Robert Frost, for example, believed in the delicate connection between literature and science,” he says. “The connection occurred at various levels, including the use of metaphor.” Faggen’s book on Frost and Darwin explores this idea through careful examination of not only Frost’s writings, but also those of Milton, Darwin, Emerson, Thoreau, and William James. “I’ve been interested,” Faggen says, “in what literature has to say about truth as compared with science.”

It is precisely this kind of painstaking attention to detail in scholarship, and the pursuit of innovation in teaching and thinking that characterizes the core humanities instruction, say Evans and Neves, that they plan to support. A combination of belief in the benefits of liberal arts education and social justice have inspired the couple to embark on the path of philanthropy. After finding success in the Army, engineering, and business, Evans decided to retire and devote the bulk of his time to his and his wife’s interests in education and social issues. The donation to Claremont McKenna College is part of this effort.

The couple hopes that their gift will encourage others to follow their example. “We hope, in our little way, to be able to show others that it’s not that hard to give,” says Evans. “This allows me to talk to people and say, ‘I did it, it’s not that hard.’”